Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Archives 2.0: If We Build It, Will They Come?

Joy Palmer discusses some of the opportunities and tensions emerging around Archives 2.0, crowd-sourcing, and archival authority.

In March 2009, the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) based at the University of Manchester collaborated with the Archives Hub to host a small conference of approximately 50 people in Manchester. ‘Archives 2.0’: Shifting Dialogues Between Users and Archivists’ was the final event in a series of CRESC events on archiving and reusing qualitative data. These events aimed to develop new approaches to archiving and reusing data and also to contribute to a recent rethinking of the archive in history, oral history, cultural studies The conference focused on the relationship between archivists, archives and their users, and looked at the emerging phenomenon of so-called ‘Archives 2.0,’ with the premise that this emergence is less about the integration of Web 2.0 technologies into online finding aids, and more related to a fundamental shift in perspective, to a philosophy that privileges the user and promotes an ethos of sharing, collaboration, and openness. Though small, the conference was a marked success, attracting a wide range of delegates and speakers (at relatively short notice). This article is based on the presentation that I gave at this conference, while I understand Ariadne hopes to commission more arising from the event.

‘If we build it, will they come?’ is a reference to the 1989 film Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner in which the protagonist takes an enormous leap of faith by building a baseball field among the cornfields of his remote Iowa farm. He creates the field because the mystical voice in his head assures him, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ And they do (eventually). More recently, the mantra has become an unlikely metaphorical reference for the various leaps of faith being taken in the information sector in respect of Web 2.0 initiatives. Many of the projects that we might label ‘Archives 2.0’ have been acts of faith, based on the largely often untested belief that if we build the right tools to promote interaction, ‘they’ (our elusive users) will come.

There is increasing consensus that ‘2.0’ is more about a shift in mindset and not technology [1], and that we need to be mindful that ‘Archives 2.0’ needs to be benefits-led and not tools-led. At the same time it is clear that we are in a period of uncertainty, where learning and experimentation will require risk-taking and leaps of faith. We must accept that any vision for ‘Archives 2.0’ will remain necessarily elusive, especially as data and archival content will be increasingly uncoupled from the ‘traditional’ channels of the online finding aid or digital library, and instead will be made available via a plethora of alternative channels, supporting a range of different contexts and user models. We must also accept that this shift will require a radical rethinking of some of the most fundamental tenets surrounding ‘archival authority.’

Web 2.0 and Episteme

The emergence of Archives 2.0 is less about technological change than a broader epistemological shift which concerns the very nature of the archive, and particularly traditional archival practice which privileges the ‘original’ context of the archival object. In ‘Archives 2.0’ the archive is potentially less a physical space than an online platform that supports participation. In this potentially radical vision, users can contribute to the archive, engage with it, and play a central role in defining its meaning.

Since the term ‘Web 2.0’ was first coined in 2004, it has become a weighty signifier, a shorthand for an entire set of transformational processes that are now accelerated by the rapid evolution of technologies where users increasingly become the creators, and not just consumers, of content. Such a transformation and opportunity has triggered a healthy strain of evangelism within the archival profession focusing upon the need to embrace ‘2.0’ as a new way of thinking about the archive [2]. The archival profession itself has been a late adopter of ‘2.0,’ a fact often decried by an (arguably) new generation of archivists, but the growing number of Archives 2.0 projects certainly points to a growing trend.

If Web 2.0 is about the zenith of remix culture, democratisation, and decentralisation of ‘traditional’ methods of information sharing, it might then be described as profoundly postmodern. In this new paradigm, content consumers become content producers. New modes of communicating and disseminating content now place greater emphasis upon process and how knowledge is increasingly collective and mediated. Web 2.0 decentralises ‘official’ knowledge production in surprising ways, and is clearly changing not only the way we interact, but even our very identities.

But if the triumphal rhetoric around this shift centres on its democratising potential, then the alternative face of this celebratory stance is a more cautious or even a concerned one, revealing many of the anxieties and tensions that have existed around authority, control, truth-telling and trust.

Archival Theory and Postmodernism

(or, the Problem with Provenance)

In 2001, well before the term ‘2.0’ was coined, Terry Cooke identified the fundamental premise of postmodern theory: ‘Facts in texts cannot be separated from their ongoing and past interpretation, nor author from subject or audience, not author from authoring, not author from context. Nothing is neutral. Nothing is objective. Everything is shaped, presented, re-presented, symbolized, signified, signed, constructed’ [3].

Archival theorists have long since made compelling cases for how archival ‘science’ and postmodernism make very uneasy bedfellows [4]. ‘Traditional’ Archival Science or theory is fundamentally positivist in its approach, and stands in stark contrast to the tenets of postmodernity. Archival theory posits ‘the archivist’ as an impartial, neutral, and therefore authoritative figure, creating an archival record that is objective, an unmediated empirical fact [5].

This organising principle has been critiqued from theoretical and practical perspectives long before the advent of ‘2.0’. Various seminal articles question the positivist approach of archival ‘science’ and also point out on a practical level how such an approach can represent a significant hindrance to resource discovery [6]. Indeed, various studies demonstrate that users do not always want to search for collections via provenance, and that archivists need to rethink fundamentally the distinction between the management of archival collections and users’ access to. and understanding of, those collections [7].

But if these user studies indicate in practical terms how archival practice is out of step with user needs, the potential of Web 2.0 promises to invoke an even more radical destabilisation of such premises, not just in respect of access points, search engine optimisation, or ‘enriching’ records to increase discovery, but also concernung the nature of the archive itself.

Finding Aids 2.0

The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections (PBEDC) is a landmark project that has made great strides in the exploration of how the conventional archival finding aid might be transformed in the new contexts of online resource discovery [8]. The project, which began in 2005, drew ‘inspiration from social technologies used in Websites such as Amazon and Wikipedia [and] developed an archival access system that combines existing archival practice (EAD) with ‘Web 2.0’ features, namely involving user input through social software and collaborative filtering’ [9]. The existing Web site allows registered users to comment on collection and item descriptions, and also uses a ‘collaborative filtering’ mechanism which tracks users’ pathways through information and uses these data to ‘recommend’ items to other users:‘Researchers who view this page also viewed…’

Significantly, one of the key factors for the success of the project was the existence of an established audience already engaged with the materials held in the collections. In other words, this was not an Archives 2.0 project in search of a community – one already existed and became immediately engaged with the collections. Indeed, the site indicates that there is an active community commenting on records, and the imminent new release of the site will allow for interaction and community-building among users in the form of more user-generated content (tags, transcripts, and notes) as well as tools for sharing bookmarks.

In the UK, The National Archives Your Archives wiki borrows from the Wikipedia model, and was launched in April 2007 [10]. Your Archives is described by the TNA as ‘an exciting and accessible resource that enables anyone to share their knowledge of Britain’s rich archival heritage and to reuse historical information in a way that has not previously been possible’ [11]. As yet, no research findings have been published about this resource [1]. However, perusal and experimentation with the wiki indicates active usage, though it is not possible to determine how many users are active. Neither is it possible to distinguish between internal (i.e. TNA staff) and external users. Obviously such information would be critical in ascertaining how successful this venture has been in terms of making the archive ‘Yours’ (i.e. the public’s).

Nonetheless, Your Archives clearly remains a critical experiment in this new terrain, allowing us to examine first hand how effective wiki software might prove as an added ‘layer’ to the catalogue. While information on the impact and usage of Your Archives is not yet available [12], a recent presentation by Sharon Howard, describing the Old Bailey Proceedings Online Project, does shed some critical light on the usage of a wiki for user engagement with the catalogue [13]. In her talk, Howard questioned the effectiveness of adapting the wiki model for user engagement or crowd-sourcing. So far, this wiki has generated very little user engagement; a fact she readily attributes to a lack both of active promotion and of a sense of the community to which the resource would best be offered (unlike the PBEDC Project, for instance).

But in addition to the need to develop an active marketing strategy in respect of the resource, Howard identified several other critical barriers to engagement. For instance, contributions were heavily mediated and not transparent; as such, users could not immediately see the impact of their contribution and so feel part of the process. If a sense of ‘instant gratification’ and ‘usefulness’ is a key motivator for effective crowd-sourcing, as projects such as Galaxy Zoo and The Great War Archive [14] have demonstrated, then ‘delayed’ gratification might only work with a diligent few (or just staff members!) In addition, the wiki, she felt, was non-intuitive and difficult to use for this type of work – an argument to the effect that interactive tools must not only be simple but also pleasurable to use [15].

We might extend these concerns further, and consider whether the transference of cataloguing and documenting principles of the archive readily translate to the context of the wiki. This notion perhaps represents the greatest barrier to external user interaction, as it requires the user first to be able to navigate the ‘official’ catalogue expertly, with a clear sense of the hierarchies and description standards, and then operate within the wiki layer to perform cataloguing-like functions.

Archives 2.0 = Finding Aid 2.0?

In the cases of the Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections Project, and Your Archives, the ‘original’ or authoritative archive remains intact [16]. The resources are organised around the traditional hierarchical principles of archival catalogue referencing. Such approaches raise questions as to how intuitive or easy to use such an interface might prove for people without professional training. However, they also highlight the challenges of developing ‘2.0’ layers that are interoperable with the ‘original’ foundational layer of the catalogue. We need to ask to what extent the principles that archivists (and other information professionals) use to manage collections will also need to transfer to these new ‘social’ contexts of interaction; and to what extent such transference poses a significant barrier to uptake.

This is not to challenge the fundamental significance of such approaches. These waters remain largely untested, and more experimentation is needed so we can gather more knowledge about this area. The fact is, there is a great deal of knowledge held by our community, especially users, which could be used to enrich the catalogue. A recent report by the Research Information Network (RIN) points to the need to experiment further in this area, especially within the cultural heritage sector [17]. User-generated content could lend meaningful and much-needed context to item descriptions. Indeed, researchers are already making significant contributions to online finding aids across the museums, library and archives sector through other means, ‘providing copies of articles or other publications resulting from their research’ [17]. They are also contributing in more informal ways, building relationships with archivists and curators, and are being called upon to provide expert opinion on certain material.

While Web 2.0 tools offer great potential for leveraging this type of hidden knowledge, such moves also highlight the degree to which the ‘user’ vs. ‘archival authority’ dichotomy is a problematic one. At the same panel mentioned above, presentations were given on more successful crowd-sourcing projects, The Great War Archive and the Galaxy Zoo projects. A key message emerging from these talks and the ensuing discussions was that users should be treated as peer collaborators, intrinsic to the process of meaning-making, rather than outside interlopers (however welcome) who must be kept at arm’s length from the authoritative record. This impulse to democratise and decentralise obviously triggered questions in the audience about issues of quality, standards and control. All these projects indicated that more risk-taking in respect of crowd-sourcing was required, that the authority of ‘metadata’ experts needs to be re-examined, and that new business models were emerging as regards crowd-sourcing which are hard to ignore.

Both the Great War Archive and the Galaxy Zoo might be examples of what Huvila might term the ‘participatory’ archive. The ‘Finding Aid 2.0’ approach is distinct from that of the participatory archive in that it limits participation to ‘around’ the archive and not within it. At present, for example, the ‘authoritative’ voice of the Polar Project is maintained by an anonymous overlord, ‘The Archivist,’ a singular entity that represents the staff of the Bentley Historical Library, and, ‘as such, represents an authoritative source of information’ [18]. Here the ‘official’ archive is kept intact and ostensibly untouched.

Huvila’s recent article on the participatory archives argues for a much more radical approach, one which privileges ‘decentralised curation, radical user orientation, and broader contextualisation of both records and the archival process’ [19] and posits a more radical user orientation, where both archivists and users collaborate to build the archive itself. Such an approach requires the fundamental belief that neither ‘the archivist’ nor user is neutral in relation to the archive, that the ‘archival context’ is not more authentic or authoritative, but is ‘based on an understanding that together the participants are more knowledgeable about the archival materials than an archivist alone can be’ [20].

Conclusion: The Limits of Crowds (Even Wise Ones)

Does the vision for Archives 2.0 end with ‘Finding Aid 2.0’? As we envision ‘Archives 2.0’, it is clear that we will need to lean towards this more radical user-orientation approach of the participatory archive. This will mean the devolvement of archival control and also the freeing of archival data for reuse and repurposing across new and dramatically different contexts from the centralised online finding aid or digital library. Archival data will be mashed and melded into new interfaces, new tools, outside our vision and control. Users might be engaging, but they are not coming to ‘us’ [21]. These new contexts for interaction and interpretation suggest that new trust metrics and heuristics will emerge that may not necessarily privilege archival authority. Institutions and professionals will need to negotiate this area of Web 2.0, where users are increasingly faced with a paucity of heuristics, and be prepared to establish new forms of ‘archival’ trust metrics [22].

But a belief in the value of the participatory archive is not enough. How do we engage the crowd? And what are the limitations of crowd-sourcing? As we develop more services or channels for engaging with the archive, we need to ascertain which crowd-sourcing models are effective for our purposes, and which, more to the point, will provide the distinct benefits we are seeking.

In the cases of the PBEDC and Your Archives, user interaction such as comments largely takes the form of corrections to dates, names, or factual information. The benefits are an enhanced, potentially more factually ‘correct’ finding aid. In quite a few cases, genealogists will leave notes along the lines of ‘this was my grandfather,’ which provides the opportunity for archivists (or other users/researchers) to follow leads and discover more historical information on that individual. In some rare cases, contributed content comes in the form of contextualising notations, for instance this example from Your Archives where the user has contributed simple but invaluable information for other users about the content of the item. The full potential of these benefits is yet to be realised, but arguably they will largely centre on the ‘enrichment’ or minor editing of the authoritative catalogue. The Great War Archive Project indicated that, with a honed and resourced marketing strategy, ‘they’ will come – as long as the system is easy to use and presents only a low barrier – and the contribution is meaningful to the individual. A ‘build it and they will come’ approach is certainly misguided.

As we think about how our resources might support education and research, it is increasingly important that we do see the communities of practice for the crowds. For even though ‘the participatory archive is about crowd-sourcing, it focuses on deeper involvement and more complex semantics rather than on larger crowds and simple annotation.’ [23]. There is overlap between the notion of the ‘crowd’ and that of ‘communities of practice,’ but some of the distinctions become vital when considering the benefits we might wish to obtain in the contexts of learning and research. Etienne Wenger defines a community of practice (CoP) as a group of individuals participating in collaborative activity where the individuals learn and establish a shared identity through the very acts of engaging in, and contributing to, the practices of their communities. CoPs ‘are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’ [24]. Annotations, tags, reviews – beneficial though such utilities can be – are not necessarily the means to cultivate a CoP, or more radically, a participatory archive. The question remains as to how we can support the type of ‘deeper involvement’ of, for instance, historical inquiry and debate, and perhaps also whether the channel of the online finding aid is the appropriate space for such involvement.


  1. See ‘Archives 2.0?’ on Kate Theimer’s blog, Archives Next http://www.archivesnext.com/?p=203
  2. For example, Kiara King’s recent presentation on Archives 2.0 at the 2008 Society of Archivists conference:
    David Kemper’s post ‘What Library 2.0 Can teach Archives 2.0’ at The DIGITAL Archive blog:
  3. Terry Cooke’s “Archival science and postmodernism: new formulations for old concepts. Archival Science” Archival Science (2000); Pg 7. http://www.springerlink.com/content/p52234804l48m463/
    Also available gratis at: http://www.mybestdocs.com/cook-t-postmod-p1-00.htm
  4. For example: Eric Ketelaar, “Archivalisation and Archiving,” Archives and Manuscripts (1999);
    Brien Brothman, “Declining Derrida: Integrity, Tensegrity, and the Preservation of Archives from Deconstruction,” Archivaria (1999).
  5. See the Society of American Archivists provide the professionally accepted definition of ‘Provenance’ here:
  6. For example, Wendy Duff and Catherine Johnson’s seminal piece, “Accidentally Found on Purpose: Information-Seeking Behavior of Historians in Archives,” Library Quarterly (2002);
    Christopher Prom’s, “User Interactions with Electronic Finding Aids in a Controlled Setting,” American Archivist (2004);
    Jane Stevenson’s “‘What Happens If I Click on This?’: Experiences of the Archives Hub,” October 2008, Ariadne, Issue 57
  7. This point is made in detailed terms in the recent OCLC report by Jennifer Schaffner’s, The Metadata Is the Interface: Better Description for Better Discovery of Archives and Special Collections, Synthesized from User Studies (2009):
  8. The Great Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collection Web site:
  9. Elizabeth Yakel et al. discuss their experiences with the Great Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections Project in “Creating the Next Generation of Archival Finding Aids,” D-Lib Magazine, May/June 2007, Volume 13 Number 56
  10. The National Archives Your Archives wiki http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
  11. The National Archives (TNA): See Your Archives About
  12. A case study of Your Archives is to be published within the upcoming volume,
    A Different Kind of Web: New Connections between Archives and Our Users with Web 2.0,
    edited by Kate Theimer for the Society of American Archivists, and due to be published in 2010.
  13. ‘User Generated Content: Old Bailey Proceedings Online.’ A presentation by Sharon Howard at the 2009 JISC Digital Content Conference:
    An audio recording of Howard’s presentation is available: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/avfiles/events/2009/06/lookingfuture1.mp3
  14. The Galaxy Zoo Project was presented at the same panel session, and highlighted a ‘crowd-sourcing’ success story:
    Also presented was The Great War Archive, another successful project which pointed to the new business models afforded by effective crowd-sourcing:
  15. Howard demonstrated the user interface of the Australian Newspaper Digitisation Project as a forceful example of effective tools http://www.nla.gov.au/ndp/
  16. This point is made by Isto Huvila in ‘Participatory archive: towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation, and broader contextualisation of records management’ Archival Science (2008).
  17. Discovering Physical Objects: Meeting Researchers’ Needs. Research Information Network report (2008) http://www.rin.ac.uk/objects
  18. Reference to ‘The Archivist’ is found here: http://polarbears.si.umich.edu/index.pl?node_id=282&lastnode_id=1163
  19. Isto Huvila, ‘Participatory archive: towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation, and broader contextualisation of records management’. Archival Science (2008), p. 15.
  20. Isto Huvila, ‘Participatory archive: towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation, and broader contextualisation of records management’. Archival Science (2008), p. 26.
  21. For an argument for the case for open, mashable cultural heritage data, see Mike Ellis’s “Pushing MRD out from under the geek rock’ at his blog, Electronic Museum:
  22. Geoff Bilder’s speaks on this issue with regard to trust metrics for scholarly communications. A recent presentation on this is available
  23. Isto Huvila, ‘Participatory archive: towards decentralised curation, radical user orientation, and broader contextualisation of records management’. Archival Science (2008), p. 27.
  24. Etienne Wenger, ‘Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction’

Author Details

Joy Palmer, Ph.D.
Senior Manager for Library and Archival Services (Archives Hub and Copac)
University of Manchester

Email: joy.palmer@manchester.ac.uk
Web site: http://joypalmer.wordpress.com

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